Slavery in Jewish Texts

prepared for the Rabbinical Assembly by Rabbi Carol Levithan

Exodus 21: 1-6

(1) And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them. (2) Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge. (3) If he comes [in] alone, he shall go out alone; if he is a married man, his wife shall go out with him. (4) If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. (5) But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free," (6) his master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.

  • How can we reconcile this practice of servitude in Exodus 21 with the concept of human equality that is implicit in " b'tzelem elohim " - being created in the divine image?
  • Why do you think the Torah raises the issue of slavery immediately after the account of the Sinai revelation?
  • What aspects of this servitude do you find particularly troubling? How does it differ from what we understand about Egyptian slavery?

Leviticus 25: 39-42

(39) And if your brother becomes destitute with you, and is sold to you, do not work him with slave labor. (40) As an employee or a [hired] resident, he shall be with you; until the Jubilee year he shall work with you. (41) Then, he shall leave you he, and his children with him, and he shall return to his family and resume the status of his fathers. (42) For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt they shall not be sold as a slave is sold.

  • There seems to be a distinction here in these verses from Leviticus between "slave labor" and an "employee or hired resident". How do you understand this distinction? Does either category appear to imply slavery as we understand it?
  • Given that the jubilee year occurred only every 50 years, which one of these Torah texts dealing with indentured servitude is the most merciful?
  • What are some of the reasons that can explain the different terms for servitude?

Deuteronomy 15: 12-18

(12) If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall send him forth free from you. (13) And when you send him forth free from you, you shall not send him forth empty-handed. (14) You shall surely provide him from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your vat, you shall give him from what the Lord, your God, has blessed you (15) And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you this thing today. (16) And it will be, if he says to you, "I will not leave you," because he loves you and your household, for it is good for him with you, (17) Then you shall take an awl and put it through his ear and into the door, and he shall be a servant to you forever; and also to your maidservant you shall do likewise. (18) You shall not be troubled when you send him free from you, for twice as much as a hired servant, he has served you six years, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you shall do.

  • Do these verses from Deuteronomy differ in significant ways from the description of servitude in Exodus?
  • Why do you think Egypt is mentioned here and not in the previous verses? What difference does it make in the context of the indentured servant?
  • What is the significance of the doorpost here? What meaning can we find as modern Jews from the way in which it is used in these verses?

Kiddushin 22b
Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai used to expound this verse as precious stone. Why was the ear singled out from all the other limbs of the body? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: This ear, which heard my Voice on Mount Sinai when I
proclaimed, For unto me the children of Israel are servants, they are my servants, and not servants of servants, and yet this [man] went and acquired a master for himself — let it [his ear lobe] be bored! R. Simeon b. Rabbi too expounded this verse as a precious stone. Why were the door and doorpost singled out from all other parts of the house? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: The door and the doorpost, which were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the doorposts and proclaimed, For unto me the children of Israel are servants, they are my servants, and not servants of servants, and so I brought them forth from bondage to freedom, yet this [man] went and acquired a master for himself — let him be bored in their presence!

The midrash from the Talmud seems to justify the servant staying with his master by finding symbolism in the part of the servant's body that is "bored" and in the doorpost against which it happens.

  • Why might a servant decide to remain indentured?
  • Should the midrash have asked that question? Why do you think it doesn't ask?
  • Do you think it is ever appropriate for a servant to choose to be bound to a master/employer?
  • In our relationships with servants do we sometimes take advantage of their needs; do we sometimes make excuses for the conditions of their lives?
  • What does it mean to call the children of Israel God's servants? Can there be positive aspects of servitude?

Shulchan Arukh Hilkhot S’khirut 21
A worker who works for his employer, whether hired by the day, or as a contractor—even if he has received his entire salary in advance, may change his mind in the middle of his work, as long as this does not create any loss for his employer, as it says “For the children of Israel are my servants”—that is, they are my servants and not servants to servants such that they should work, not of their own free will, just because they have already been hired.

In the excerpt above from the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, one of the most important Jewish legal codes, we see a very different perspective on servants. (The English translation by Rabbi Jill Jacobs is acknowledged with gratitude.)

  • Do you think this is a reasonable way to deal with servants? Is it unrealistic?
  • What are our legal and ethical obligations to those who work for us if we live according to the idea that no humans can be defined as "servants to servants"?
  • How might this idea that no humans can be “servants to servants” impact relationships with those who work for us? Are there changes we might make in these relationships based on this concept?

Leviticus 25:44-46

(44) Your male slave or female slave whom you may have from the nations that are around you, from them you may acquire a male slave or a female slave. (45) And also from the children of the residents that live among you, from them you may acquire [slaves] and from their family that is with you whom they begot in your land, and they shall become your inheritance. (46) You shall hold onto them as an inheritance for your children after you, as acquired property, and may thus have them serve you forever. But as for your brethren, the children of Israel, a man shall not work his brother with rigor.

  • In what ways does the form of servitude described in these verses from Leviticus differ from the previous texts in Exodus, Deuteronomy and the other excerpt from Leviticus about the " eved ivri " - a Hebrew servant?
  • Are there justifications for enslaving people because they are enemies or because they were captured in warfare as enemy combatants?
  • Is it surprising to know that slavery still exists even in the 21st century? While slavery in our time often results from warfare there are many other causes of modern slavery that you can learn about from the sources on the next page.


Learn more! Take Action! In the coming year, Congress will take up several pieces of legislation aimed at preventing the root causes of human trafficking in the United States. These include the vulnerability of children in the foster care system, fraud and coercion in the visa process for foreign workers temporarily in the country and transparency about slavery in the supply chain. Legislation about human trafficking is often bipartisan, with legislators on both sides of the aisle coming together to prevent this horrific crime. Below is information about three pending bills compiled by the Alliance To End Slavery & Trafficking (ATEST), a national coalition of major anti-trafficking organizations coming together to promote effective policy around modern day slavery. There is also information about a current bill compiled by the Polaris Project. You can call your Senators and Congressmen and urge them to support this legislation. It only takes a minute to call, identify yourself as a constituent, and say that as a Jew and as an American, ending human trafficking is important to you and it is critical for Rep. X to support Bill Y. Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act (H.R. 1732) Fact Sheet: Strengthen Regulation of Foreign Labor Recruitment Fact Sheet: Business Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act Fact Sheet: Here is an action alert from Polaris Project about the current bill, H.R. 3344:
Legislative Update: Policy Resources

haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings